The December 4 issue of Rolling Stone includes an article entitled “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely.  Miss Erdely tells us about a University of Virginia coed (“Jackie”) who claims to have been raped by seven fraternity boys two years ago.  The piece could hardly be more urgent, inflammatory, and, under closer investigation, untrue.

After ten days, during which no one publicly expressed reservations about the story, Steve Sailer reads a blog by Richard Bradley, former editor of George, who asks if the story is true.  After rereading the story, Sailer raises suspicions of his own on Taki’s Magazine.  The Washington Post and others follow his lead.  Not long after, Rolling Stone files an apology owning up to their editors’ mistakes.  Mistakes?  How could the magazine’s editors have believed what now transpires to have been an obvious fiction?  Sailer argues they believed because they wanted to.  The narrative conformed to their ideological prejudices concerning wealthy white men.

I think Sailer is right.

And there may be another reason.  I suspect the editors at Rolling Stone didn’t take enough—or perhaps any—undergraduate courses in literature.

One of the scandals of college education today is that a student can earn a degree, even a journalism degree, without having to trouble her- or himself with reading Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, to say nothing of John Milton or T.S. Eliot.  Courses in public relations, business management, and internet marketing are considered far more vital for achieving success in today’s world.  Sitting down to a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne?  Are you joking?  Since the University of Virginia is involved, let’s consider its requirements.  The UVA catalog stipulates students are required to take a one-semester writing course—two, if they’re not sufficiently prepared in this art.  As for literature, they can easily avoid it, if that’s their desire.  This is not an anomaly.  It’s pretty much the same across the country.

My point is this: Had the editors at Rolling Stone been at all acquainted with the conventional tropes of narrative fiction, they might have noticed that Jackie’s story was just that: a story invented by a troubled girl and abetted by an eager, cynical journalist on the make.

Several elements in the account make this obvious.  Consider the broken glass featured in the story.  The narrative has it that a UVA junior brought Jackie to a party at his frat house, ostensibly on a date.  Once there, he suggested they go to the second floor.  He took her into a “pitch black” room in which eight other men were waiting.  One of these men tackled Jackie, causing both of them to fall onto a glass table, shattering it across the floor.  The men then piled on, two pinning the girl down while the others began, one by one, to have intercourse with her.  This was the detail that first raised Sailer’s suspicions.  No matter how crazed with lust, he reasoned, it didn’t seem probable that Jackie’s assailants would risk lacerating themselves while having their way with the young lady on the shard-strewn floor.  Surely someone would have turned on the lights and swept away the glass.  Few things are as inimical to a rapist’s ardor as a glass splinter in his penis.

On the other hand, however unlikely the broken glass in Erdely’s report, it wouldn’t be at all surprising in a work of fiction.  In his filming of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan cuts to a smashed mirror as the brutish Stanley Kowalski begins to rape Blanche DuBois, a woman with pretensions to high culture.  Smashed glass is the perfect analog to what is happening.  Throughout the play, Stanley has been threatening to knock Blanche off her high horse, to take her down to his elemental level.  He stands for what is primal; she, for everything that seeks to evade the crude, animal basis of human life.  When Stanley smashes the mirror, we get a glimpse of Blanche reflected in its shards.  Her pretty, romantic world and her sense of herself have been shattered.  Meanwhile, Stanley, you’ll note, is not rolling around in the mirror’s fragments.  That’s because they are a metaphor.

In many literary works, glass—fragile and delicate—stands for civilization itself.  To be sustained, it must be handled with restraint.  Its existence requires that men and women respect its vulnerability.  In another key, this is the message of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall.  In its opening pages we hear “the sound of English county families baying for broken glass.”  Actually, it’s the “confused roaring” of the families’ male spawn as they rampage drunkenly through the quad of one of Oxford’s colleges, destroying every artifact of civilization in their path—pianos, paintings, manuscript poems.  So committed to upending traditional English civilization, these ruffians, we’re told with a certain glee, once celebrated a dinner party by having a caged fox brought before them so they could stone it to death with champagne bottles.  “What a night that had been,” the narrator exclaims.  So it’s goodbye to fox hunting and civilization amid the “confused roaring” of upper-class savages intent on breaking glass.

Glass shards are a literary commonplace.  They can be found in the works of many major and minor writers.  The one most proximate source for Miss Erdely would be Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, in which a smashed glass table serves as a metaphor of the violence that has invaded a marriage.  The broken glass in Erdely’s report clearly echoes these and many other fictional scenes of civilization destroyed.

A note to Miss Flynn: Sue Miss Erdely for unlicensed borrowing, and do so right away, before the line of plaintiffs grows any longer.  It’s likely to include quite a number, including Jackie herself.  She has revealed that she had begged the journalist to leave her out of her article.

There’s also Erdely’s inclusion of a quote attributed to Jackie.  The supposed victim supposedly told the supposed journalist that as she struggled against her violators, one of them called out to the others, “Grab its motherf-cking leg.”  One wonders if Jackie, lying in the broken glass, battered by the rapists, would have been able to discern their use of pronouns with any certainty.  Then again, would young men, even at their most bestial, transform the object of their lust from a woman to a thing?  The use of it here seems unmistakably a trick of language that a novelist might play, especially if he were using third-person narration.  Having a character say “it” at this juncture would render the moment most improbable.  On the other hand, literary license would allow an impersonal narrator to use the impersonal pronoun.  It would serve as a device to suggest how the men had dehumanized the woman and, by reflex, themselves.  Perhaps Miss Erdely’s literary skill failed her on this point.

In short, Erdely’s text has fiction stamped all over it.  It doesn’t take a doctorate in literature to recognize this, although Rolling Stone’s editors might have benefited from a few courses in fiction.  Or even film studies.

Like Sailer, I’m not seeking to belittle Jackie.  While her story doesn’t ring true—if it’s her story at all—she may nevertheless have been abused in one fashion or another.  It certainly seems Erdely worked her over.

What’s important about Erdely’s article is that it was met with unquestioning credulity for a week and a half before a couple of alert journalists began asking questions.  It’s as clear an instance of ideological-induced gullibility as the recent befuddlement over events in Ferguson, Missouri.

I also find it particularly rich that Erdely found a home for her horror story in the pages of Rolling Stone.  This is a magazine that devotes itself to celebrating whatever is most salacious in popular music and culture, abetted by photographs of nearly naked bodies of young people assuming studied contortions of seeming lust.  Have the editors at Rolling Stone ever considered how their rag influences the young?  I doubt it.  They’re too intent on making money on hormone-addled kids susceptible to their reckless pandering.  Boys are especially victimized by such publications and, more generally, the culture of pornography that invades their lives daily.  Small wonder that the more loutish among them come to think of women as sexual conveniences to be used and disposed of as easily as cheap appliances.  Certainly, Rolling Stone endorses this view by celebrating the wildly hedonistic lives of rock stars and featuring ads for sex toys and male-enhancement products in its back pages.

When it comes to rape, who’s assaulting whom?